Dreaming Paintings

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Courtesy Vivian Suter and Gladstone Gallery, New York und Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Photo: David Regen

Vivian Suter has now spent more than three decades working in her garden in Guatemala, where nature intervenes in her paintings and contributes to their creation. After a 2017 presentation of her work at documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel comes ›Bonzo’s Dream‹ at Brücke-Museum in Berlin. Suter’s first institutional exhibition in Germany puts her work in dialogue with pieces by artists associated with the »Brücke«group

When a devastating hurricane swept over Guatemala in autumn 2005, the artist Vivian Suter initially thought that a large part of her work was irretrievably lost. Sludge and mud had tumbled through the studio and storage area, burying almost everything in their wake. It took a while before the painter could even enter those spaces to begin with the clean-up. But gradually, Suter came to see a hidden gift in the destruction: the paintings were still there under a crust of mud. Only different. »Suddenly these paintings got another life«, [1] the painter recalled in an interview.

The artist ultimately embraced the weather’s influences. Her work took a new direction. Her paintings produced since then have been in and with nature; art emerges rather organically in tandem with the environment. Suter not only applies paint to her canvases, she also casually subjects them to the elements of nature: rain, mud, leaves, and insects leave their marks. Occasional avocados and mangos plop onto the canvas from fruit trees hovering above.

Suter was born in Buenos Aires in 1949. The family moved to Basel in the early 1960s. She attended art college in Switzerland in the late 1960s, studied painting, and had her first solo exhibition at Galerie Stampa in Basel in 1971. The curator Jean-Christophe Ammann showed work by Suter in a group exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel in the early 1980s. She was, to all appearances, an ›emerging artist‹ on the rise.

But art-world hype is not Suter’s cup of tea. So instead of ascending a career ladder, she set off on a trip. On a 1983 visit to Central America, Suter passed through the small town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán in the southwestern Guatemalan Highlands. The three volcanoes Atitlán, San Pedro, and Tolimán line the southern shore of the lake. A magical landscape. German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt is said to have called Atitlán »the most beautiful lake in the world«. Coffee, avocados, and papayas are cultivated on its verdant shores. Suter decided to stay and set up her studio on the site of a former coffee plantation. A period of work in relative seclusion began. It lasted for over three decades. Later, her mother—the artist Elisabeth Wild, who was born in Vienna and whose family had fled to Argentina to escape Nazism in Europe—also relocated from Basel to Panajachel. Both women continued their respective work in close proximity to one other until Wild’s death in February 2020.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, undated, mixed media on canvas, 100 3/4 x 69 5/8 inches. ©Vivian Suter, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Courtesy Vivian Suter and Gladstone Gallery, New York und Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; Proyectos Ultravioleta, Photo: David Regen

A moving half-hour film entitled ›Vivian’s Garden‹, which the British painter and filmmaker Rosalind Nashashibi filmed in and around Suter’s studio in 2017, shows canvases being carried through the artist’s tropical garden. They emerge from the undergrowth like a rare species, are briefly touched by the sun and subsequently vanish in dense shade. The film was made on the occasion of Suter’s participation in documenta 2017. d14 curator Adam Szymczyk had discovered old documents during his research in the Kunsthalle Basel archives a few years earlier, managed to track down the artist in Guatemala and invited her and her mother to Athens and Kassel.

Suter titled her Berlin show ›Bonzo’s Dream‹. It could well be a coincidence, but one of Suter’s dogs is also called Bonzo. The dog »resembles a German shepherd dog—except about twice the size«,[2] wrote a reporter who visited the artist in her studio around 2017. But what do dogs dream of? Do they dream in colours and patterns? Can abstract art be conceived from a dog’s perspective? And what would it look like? Such distinctions seem fluid in Suter’s art anyhow: non-representational elements, hints of plant shadows, and animal shapes merge and flow into one another. Just as they might in the blue hour when everything becomes more shadowy, contrasts recede into the background. There is something inward-looking about these works. A turn to nature can also come with a kind of detachment from the world, a quality also evident here in light of the social and political context in which these pictures are actually created: Guatemala has been ruled by a right-wing conservative president since the beginning of the year. The country has struggled with poverty, gang violence, and corruption for decades.

Vivian Suter, studio view, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2018. Courtesy Vivian Suter and Gladstone Gallery, New York und Brüssel; House of Gaga; Karma International; und Proyectos Ultravioleta, Photo: David Regen

Vivian Suter, Untitled, undated, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 68 1/8 inches. ©Vivian Suter, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; House of Gaga; Karma International; and Proyectos Ultravioleta.
Franz Nölken, View into a garden, around 1912/13, oil on canvas, 55,5 x 50 cm, Brücke-Museum. Photo: Nick Ash

Suter herself does not title or date her paintings. The captions always read ›Untitled, Undated‹. So they cannot be put into an obvious chronological order. The fact that Suter also dispenses with frames makes the presentation appear even looser, more free. It feels a bit as though the production context were extended into the exhibition space—which is of course a form of fiction or dream. It is possible that these paintings know no end. Canvases might lie on the museum floor, overlap on the wall or hang close together like meticulously-arranged pieces of laundry on a clothes drying rack. At documenta 14 in Athens Suter’s paintings hung in an open, airy pavilion near the Acropolis, where they billowed slightly in the wind. It was there in Athens that Lisa Marei Schmidt also discovered Suter’s work. The director of the Brücke-Museum in Berlin has been planning the first institutional exhibition of Suter’s paintings in Germany ever since.

It is a lucky coincidence that the Brücke-Museum has an extensive garden on the eastern edge of Berlin’s Grunewald forest. Painting in nature was also a key driver for the »Brücke« artists’ group around Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, to whom the Dahlem museum is dedicated. The connection between art and nature also became a life concept for the Expressionists, which continued even after the »Brücke« group’s dissolution. Paintings including Kirchner’s ›Stilleben mit Fruchtschale‹, a still life with fruit bowl from 1914 or Franz Nölken’s 1912/13 garden-view painting ›Blick in einen Garten‹ will be shown together with Suter’s paintings. Elisabeth Wild, the artist’s mother, selected the works from the museum’s collection before her death. Like Kirchner and Co. around 1900, Vivian Suter longed to get away from the art world and its rigid hierarchies in the 1980s. She set out to find a place and found a spot on Lake Atitlán—somewhere she could paint in peace. Only it just so happens that the art world loves its renegades: and the less it is loved in return, the more intense its affection sometimes turns out to be. Even over vast distances.



[1] ›Interview with Vivian Suter‹, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQqAvlyFrcc.
[2] Michael Hugentobler, ›Vivian Suter. Die Frau, die malt und malt und malt‹, ›Das Magazin‹ 35, 2018,  S. 20–34, quoted here by: https://aad90b8e-41ac-43c6-86cd-5c6dbebb1730.filesusr.com/ugd/94bd02_41aeb887a4944e4ba7f77b7516ed3985.pdf.

Vivian Suter. Bonzo’s Dream
13 SEP 2020—14 FEB 2021
Opening Weekend
12 SEP 11am—7pm, 13 SEP 11am—6pm

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